It occurred to me today, as I sipped my second cup of coffee and looked out on a winter wonderland, that there really is a dearth of information regarding the appropriate care of LGDs in very cold weather.
I live in a part of Canada where we often see the extremes of both ends of the thermometer. We have high temperatures with higher humidity in the summer and very low temperatures with dry air that cracks your skin in the winter. This type of exceptionally seasonal climate is one of the more challenging places to keep Livestock Guardian Dogs.
Even if you don’t experience winters where the mercury regularly dips to -40 or more, but you live where humidity is higher, if you’ve move recently or if your seasons are changing dramatically with global warming, you may wonder how to tell if your LGD is adequately provided for. The advice provided by the pet sector, which is the most readily available information, often leads people to the wrong conclusions. While perhaps well intentioned, most pet and shelter suggestions given out at this time of year focus on the dog that was never intended to handle cold climes: the small, slight, single or short coated dog. They then extrapolate that information to all dogs in the hopes that people will err on the side of caution. Sometimes, they get the information wrong for farm animals and dogs alike. Memes like the ones below just make things worse.
Information like this relies heavily on anthropomorphism which is the notion of ascribing human attributes to something non-human. “If it’s too cold outside for you, it’s too cold for them.” is the ongoing mantra of this movement – no matter how illogical that sounds. Dogs are not built like humans, don’t think like humans, and some really prefer to be outdoors rather than confined to a hot, stifling house. For us producers, an acknowledgement that LGDs are not, in fact, pets, and that they have a job they’ve been equipped to do outside regardless of the weather would go a long way towards healing the rift between farmers and the pet sector. The more responsible we are about recognizing what our dogs need in extreme weather, the more we will help to head off any Nosy Nellies who want to know how we could be so cruel as to keep dogs outside year round.
Let’s talk a bit about that responsibility.
From my point of view, the most important thing we can do for our LGDs is to choose dogs with a coat type that can handle the environment they are expected to live in. No matter how much you like the look of a certain kind of dog, if they are not equipped to live outside all year where you are, it is unethical to require them to do so. Very short coats are not appropriate for working in extreme weather. Single coated dogs are very susceptible to weather changes and typically only do well in very hot climates without extensive care; therefore, all LGDs should have double coats. Double coated dogs have exactly what you’d expect from the name: two coats. The outer coat is comprised of longer guard hairs that are naturally water repellent. They retain this coat throughout the year. Underneath grows a slightly shorter plush and fleecy coat that traps warm air in the winter and retains it close to the dog’s skin. In essence, the properly double coated dog wears a downy, weather repellent coat all of the time – a perfect accessory for living in the cold. Contrary to what many people think, this coat serves equally well to keep the dogs cool in summer, shedding out when the warm weather comes to allow maximum air flow close to the skin.
The double coat comes in short, medium and long versions. I personally feel that any dog who is meant to live and work in extreme conditions should have at least a medium length double coat. Take your cues from the predators who live in your area – what length of coat do they have? This should be the minimum coat on your dogs. The last thing you want is for your dogs to be handicapped by needing to be more concerned about keeping themselves warm than defending the flock. Dogs with overly short coats for their environment will spend more time seeking warmth and will need to eat significantly more than dogs who are able to retain more of their body heat with longer coats.
It’s important to note that not all LGDs here in North America have been bred with proper weather resistant coats, even if they are double coated and of a good length. A good example of this is the “cottony” coat that has been bred into many show Great Pyrenees and that finds its way into the working populace. This coat requires extensive grooming, mats easily, absorbs moisture instead of shedding it and consequently does not serve to keep the dog warm in the winter or cool in the summer. When freshly groomed, this coat resembles a cotton ball and consequently often has to be shaved in the summer to avoid matting completely. A proper double coat, regardless of length, will shed out on its own twice a year, will be very self cleaning, and will require only minimal annual or bi-annual brushing.
How do we know if a LGD’s double coat is doing its job in the cold? The easiest time to check at a glance is when it’s snowing. If the snow lands on the dog and remains intact, not melting, the coat is working well. If the snow turns to water, this means that too much heat is escaping from the dog’s body and melting it. Sometimes a puppy coat can do this but correct itself when the adult coat grows in; more often the coat is appropriate from the beginning.
Even the most well coated dog can have trouble staying warm in the very extremely cold weather, especially if it is prolonged. It is important to remember that even if the thermometer reads only a moderately cold temperature, the wind can drive that number much lower. For this reason, a windbreak of some kind is crucial if a full shelter cannot be provided. Since most LGDs prefer to stay with their stock (who also help to provide body heat), a windbreak for everyone will be more readily used than a stand alone dog house under these circumstances.
Extreme weather requires the dog to burn more calories to stay warm, just as it does for livestock. Apart from changes to the environment, if your dog continues to have trouble keeping weight on in the winter or begins to shiver, consider increasing the amount of food they are fed daily. Feeding twice a day instead of once, adding a bit more fat and/or carbs, and adding warm water to the food are all ways to tackle this problem. Thirst increases in the winter as well, making free access to liquid water a necessity. This helps ensure that the dogs remain healthy and that their digestive systems continue to operate properly.
Provide warm bedding, especially bedding that has insulating properties and doesn’t easily trap and hold moisture. We use straw here, since it is plentiful and fits the criteria. Only consider providing a coat for your dog as a last resort and only in the most extreme weather, as it can interfere with their ability to acclimate to the elements. It may be tempting to bring your dogs inside to the comfort of your heated house. In my opinion, it is better to allow them free access to a heated spot outside. Our houses are kept at almost unbearable temperatures for properly coated dogs who have acclimated to living outside. A heated portion of an insulated building or a heating mat are much better options. It is also very difficult for a devoted LGD to protect and nurture their charges from inside the house.
A pair or multiple dogs may well do much better in the winter than one. They are much more likely to get moving, through play or patrolling, and keep their bodies more limber and warm than if they were to lay around all day. They are much more likely to work together against predators and as a result be able to conserve as much energy as possible. A well rested, well nourished dog who is not anxious about their ability to drive off predators will be a much more effective guardian year-round.
*** A few important notes:
- Both age and health problems will compromise the ability of a dog to regulate their body temperature outside. The responsible producer will keep these in mind when assessing the condition of their dogs in the winter and make changes accordingly. Read about age, compromised health and complications here.
- Humid cold weather will affect dogs with arthritis much in the way it affects humans with the same condition. It is best to work with a vet to address this problem if at all possible. For further reading, click here.
- It is more important than ever to check LGDs over from head to toe frequently in the winter. In this way, you are likely to find any problems early on and be able to address them before they get worse.
- Cold weather slows wound healing, as mentioned in Merck’s “Wound Management”. Keep a close eye on any wounds and their healing process. Be proactive in contacting your vet if you notice anything amiss.
- If your dog’s feet gather a lot of snowballs during parts of the winter, trim the hair on the bottom of their feet.
- Further reading on LGDs and cold weather can be found here. A good post regarding cold weather and other types of dogs can be found here.